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Softball Salvation

Will improvements to Caswell Park give East Knoxville an economic spark?

by David Madison

The Smokies may have struck out, but the city hopes softball will remain a hit at Caswell Park. A Caswell Park task force—made up of representatives from local government, civic groups, sports organizations and neighborhood associations—set out months ago to come up with a plan to revitalize the public space, neighborhoods and industrial areas surrounding the Smokies' former home, Bill Meyer Stadium. From that process, softball has emerged as the project's economic enzyme.

Once the park becomes a spiffed-up, softball Shangri-La, it will attract hundreds of teams from around the county and region. Its appeal to companies with softball teams will become so contagious that businesses will want to locate near the complex.

Or at least, that's the spin some are giving their pitch for more softball at Caswell Park.

Dwight Guinn, a task force member and Park Ridge resident, says he's confused by the task force's faith in softball. Given the Smokies' demise, asks Guinn, how can softball offer such promise?

"Just a year ago, nobody could find the park. Nobody wanted to come to that part of town," says Guinn, recalling the discussions that eventually led to the Smokies bidding good-bye to Bill Meyer.

"But now," continues Guinn, "Parks and Rec has seized upon it because they own 20 acres already. It's not that it's the right place. It's the cheapest place."

Joe Walsh, assistant director of Knoxville's Department of Parks and Recreation, says Caswell Park is the best location for the city to expand its softball facilities because it's currently one of the most popular places to play. The city's three fields at Caswell Park are packed with 170 teams playing at various times year round.

If the City Council backs Parks and Rec's plan, a four-field, pinwheel-shaped softball complex will take up roughly half the park. The fields will be located where the old Evans Collins football field now stands.

The bleachers at Bill Meyer Stadium will also be demolished, with the stadium's parking lot becoming green space. Along First Creek, the Parks and Rec plan calls for more green space where neighborhood residents can gather and play.

On an ideal day in the Caswell Park of the future, locals will play Frisbee in the park's new open spaces while teams pack the softball complex. At Bill Meyer Stadium, amateur baseball teams will tread the bases when neighborhood kids aren't playing soccer in the outfield.

As it exists today, the park isn't much to look at. Passersby driving down Woodbine Avenue, Winona Street, and East Fifth Avenue see a few softball fields, an abandoned baseball stadium and Evans Collins field's decaying concrete stands. But in the minds of those gathered on the Caswell Park task force, this patch of urban space spreads out like an inspiring canvas. Everyone involved appears eager to attach their ideas to the park's future.

That's why task force meetings bristle at times with an air of discontent. When the task force met on Feb. 1, some members identified job creation and industrial development as the project's top priorities. But if unemployment and urban decay are the problems that surround Caswell Park—which happens to sit in the center of Knoxville's Empowerment Zone—then softball is the task force's favored solution.

Where Smokies baseball failed, softball is expected to deliver salvation. The sport will dominate much of the park, according to a final design produced by LDR International, the Maryland-based firm hired by the city. Craig Watson says his firm's design strives to strike a balance "between regional recreational uses and passive neighborhood recreation."

In other words, LDR wants Caswell Park to bring in droves of softball players from all over East Tennessee, but also draw people from out of the surrounding neighborhoods.

At the park's new entrances, LDR suggests decorative street lights and tasteful landscaping to give the park an outgoing personality. Watson says his firm wants to create an "extroverted site" that appears inviting to those driving into East Knoxville along Magnolia and Woodbine Avenues.

It should also prove inviting to businesses looking for warehouse and manufacturing space, says Doug Berry, Knoxville's Director of Development.

"I think this park will stimulate re-industrialization in this area," says Berry, who believes the new softball complex will act as bait to lure employers to East Knoxville. He says Loudon County is currently building a 100-acre softball facility. The project, says Berry, is just one part of the "delicate mix" governments try to strike when looking for ways to stimulate local economies.

"With the Smokies moving on, let's look at what's the next step in the life for that park," says Berry. "And in Southern culture, softball is king."

But on Knoxville's list of big ticket budget items, says Berry, the $9.4 million Caswell Park project isn't a top priority. The city has already committed itself to several ambitious plans aimed at revitalizing other parts of the city. In addition to the $300 million convention center crusade to remake downtown, the city is also trying to jump-start Mechanicsville and the old Coster Shops off Interstate 275 in North Knoxville.

That leaves Caswell Park dwelling somewhere in the dugout of local urban planning. Parks and Recreation will present its plan for Caswell Park to City Council in the coming weeks. The department hopes the project will be included in next year's budget, so it must get a preliminary nod from council by April.

In order to expand the current facilities and add another field, the city must acquire some land along East Fifth Avenue. It's also considering the purchase of other land along Woodbine Avenue.

In all, Parks and Rec has budgeted $3 million for land acquisition and demolition. Tearing down the bleachers at Bill Meyer Stadium will cost $450,000 alone.

Costs associated with purchasing land and tearing down existing structures should be covered in the project's first phase, says Sam Anderson, director of Knoxville Parks and Rec Department. After that, Parks and Rec will attempt to phase in the rest of the project, just as it's done at Chilhowee Park and Holston River Park. At Holston River Park, says Anderson, it's taken more than 10 years to complete steps laid out in the master plan.

Anderson says state and federal grants could significantly supplement the city's investment in Caswell Park. The project could also be enhanced by a partnership with the Eastside YMCA, which has its eye on a block along Jessamine Street between East Fifth Avenue and Magnolia. The 2.5-acre space is now home to Dixon Barbecue and other small businesses. But in Parks and Rec's proposal to City Council, it may be sketched in as a new YMCA building located just across the street from Caswell Park.

Park Ridge resident Laura Perry says the community needs a new YMCA-like facility more than it needs new softball fields.

"This is a depressed economic area," says Perry. "A lot of these kids have nothing and they should have more than watching people from West Knoxville play in softball tournaments."

When asked if she thought softball would help revitalize the industrial areas that ring Caswell Park, Perry says, "The softball complex will get built, and everything else will get put on the back burner... When it comes to redevelopment, East Knoxville gets the money last."